The Internet is freewheeling “ether,” where, it seems, anyone can say anything about anyone or anything. Wealth managers are becoming increasingly concerned about how to effectively manage their valuable, but vulnerable, reputations. They are even concerned about how their clients are being portrayed online.

It’s becoming a big deal. Next week, online reputation management will be discussed at three major forums around the country. On October 3, Silver Bridge Advisors will host a seminar on “Family Security in the Age of Social Media” at the Boston Public Library. The next day at the Institute for Private Investors’ annual Fall Forum in New York, marketing strategist April Rudin will moderate a session on managing reputations online. And on October 5 and 6 reputation management will be discussed at a forum on family dynamics co-hosted by Wells Fargo’s Family Wealth and Private Bank units and the University of Southern Florida Foundation in Tampa.

The starting point for any discussion of reputation management is to make wealthy families realize how valuable their reputations are, and how easily reputations can be damaged on the Internet, experts say. “Anyone can post anything about anyone else, and it doesn’t have to be true,” said Rudin. “And the Internet is forever. What’s there doesn’t go away.”

What’s more, the first impression people have of individuals, families and businesses are increasingly formed by a Google search. “More and more, a Google search is the first thing people do when they meet someone or want to do business with them,” said Chris Cicero, chief executive of New York-based Digital WhiteOut, a firm specializing in online reputation management. “Whether positive or negative, that’s how they’re perceived. The problem is that negative stories, which may not even be true, are viewed more and rank higher on Google searches.”

If It’s Public, It’s On The Web
But malicious online postings are just the half of it. Straightforward, factual information about individuals, families and companies taken from public records also are likely to end up online. “Anything you’ve done in the past is quite possibly documented online,” Cicero said. Examples include real estate transactions, wills, vacation rentals and where individuals—and their children—attend school. Skeptics are advised to go to sites like www.spokeo.com and enter their own names for proof.

Wealthy families are being cautioned that any event, especially one that sparks an internal conflict, such as a divorce, the sale of a business or another asset, substance abuse or an arrest stemming drunk driving or domestic violence is likely to become public and find its way to the Internet. Indiscreet postings of bad behavior or confidential family information by teenagers and young adults on social media sites are also seen as major areas of concern.

The fallout from unwanted online publicity can be devastating, experts warn, and damage business and job prospects as well as an individual or a families’ standing in their community.
The damage can be self-inflicted, as former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s postings of salacious pictures of himself on Twitter over the summer famously demonstrated. But wealthy individuals and families can also be the target of “strategic smearing” by disgruntled former business partners, spouses, employees and competitors, said Cicero.

One of Cicero’s clients, for example, had to fend off a nasty campaign to “actively destroy his reputation online,” which included hundreds of false web site postings accusing the client, a successful businessman who owned a large company, of using drugs and employing prostitutes.

So what can wealthy families and wealth managers do to protect and manage their reputations?

“The biggest problem is lack of knowledge,” said Steve Prostano, chief executive of Boston-based Silver Bridge, who added that the inspiration for the Monday symposium on family security came from the firm’s own experience with potential privacy breaches when it hired a “cyber consultant” to prevent outsiders hacking into Silver Bridge’s internal data. “We saw that there was a real hunger for information because things are moving so fast, so we’re bringing in experts on cyber-security,” Prostano said.

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Risk Analysis And On-line Audits
Wealthy families need to take reputation management seriously, and conduct a risk analysis starting with an online audit, said Susan Massenzio, a psychologist and senior consultant to Wells Fargo Family Wealth, the banks’ family office division for families with at least $50 million in investable assets. “We want them to do an Internet search to look at social media to see what people are saying about them,” Massenzio said. “Once they see what’s out there it becomes real for them and they become more conscious of the risk involved, and the importance of being mindful of what they say and do, because it might be picked up on the Internet.”

Rudin said she counsels clients to take a pro-active approach to online information and post positive stories about themselves. “When people say they don’t want to post anything about themselves because they’re private, I tell them, ‘No, they are not,’ and then do a Google search of their name to prove it. Someone else is already putting information out there about them, so they should push out stories about whatever causes they’re passionate about. The best defense is a really good offense.”

Wealthy people who want to limit their exposure online should keep a low public profile, said attorney Gideon Rothschild, a partner at the New York law firm Moses & Singer, who spoke at a panel on protecting a family’s reputation sponsored by Wells Fargo Private bank earlier this year. In addition to being “very, very careful” about what they say and do in public, wealthy families should buy property using an LLC instead of under their own name, since the transaction will go in the public record, Rothschild said. Since a will also becomes a matter of public record upon death, he advises clients to use a revocable living trust instead.

Those who are unhappy about how they are currently portrayed on the Internet can employ firms, such as Digital WhiteOut, that claim to help “restructure” reputations by creating new positive content and “making it more visible” on the Web, according to Cicero. The firm aims to “control page one of search engine results,” Cicero said, by “reverse-engineering search algorithms” and being attuned to Google rankings while working within the search engine giant’s guidelines.

Many clients think they can hire an attorney to remove online content that is untrue, but that rarely happens, Cicero said, because companies that operate online social sites are not liable for comments made by members.

“The Internet is a blank canvas, and if you don’t put something on it, somebody else will,” he cautioned.